Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
The title of Bill Morgan’s compelling and beguiling new book, “The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation” (Free Press: $28.00, 293 pps.), is inspired by a footnote from Allen Ginsberg’s epoch-making poem, “Howl.”
“The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!”
In that single line, we are able to glimpse what made Ginsberg and the Beats such a powerful force in the remaking of American popular culture. “The Beats of the forties and fifties were the catalysts who precipitated the more widespread social rebellion of the sixties and seventies,” writes Morgan. “The period of upheaval that we call ‘the sixties’ might well have taken place without the Beat Generation, but it would have certainly had a different flavor and moved at a different pace.”
Although Morgan describes the experiences of a generation, “The Typewriter Is Holy” can also be approached as a strikingly intimate biography of Ginsberg. “I would compare the story of the Beats to a freight train, with Allen Ginsberg as the locomotive that pulled the others along like so many boxcars,” writes Morgan. “The history of the Beat Generation is really the story of this one man’s desire to gather a circle of friends around him, people he loved and who could love him.”
Morgan, a college student during the 60s, came to know and work with Ginsberg and virtually all of the other Beats except Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. He represented Ginsberg in the sale of his papers to Stanford University for a cool million, and thereafter “Allen introduced me as a ‘genius’ of bibliography.”
So Morgan is able to see the Beats as human beings as well as iconic poets, a fact that helps to explain why his book is so lively and so chatty. “The Typewriter Is Holy” is clearly based on a mastery of the available scholarship, but it is also enlivened by Morgan’s fascination with the flesh-and-blood exploits of the men and women he writes about. So we are allowed to see ardent seductions (both heterosexual and homosexual), backroom abortions, dabbling in drugs, suicide attempts, and even a murder, all of which help to explain what we read in the poems they left behind.
Thus, for example, Morgan recreates the night of October 17, 1954, when Ginsberg took peyote for the first time and happened to glimpse the Sir Francis Drake Hotel through an open window. “In the San Francisco fog that shrouded the building, he saw the hotel begin to glow with the monstrous face of Moloch, the Phoenician god that was described in the Old Testament as a child-eating demon,” writes Morgan. “It was a horrible, terrifying vision, but one that gave Ginsberg a new insight into the greed of man, and the vision lingered in Allen’s brain long enough for him to write down a detailed description. Those notes would be become the basis for ‘Howl.’”
For the reader who knows the Beats only obliquely or not at all — and even for readers who may still recall the thrill of reading “Howl” for the first time — “The Typewriter Is Holy” takes us beyond the printed pages of poetry and brings us face to face with the troubled geniuses who created a kind of counter-literature.
There’s a small irony at work in the title of Morgan’s book. “The Ginsberg family was Jewish in name only,” he insists, “and both of Allen’s parents were fully agnostic.” Yet it is also true that Ginsberg’s Jewishness rings out in his poetry — not only in “Kaddish,” a poem nearly as famous as “Howl,” but even in the footnote that provides the title of Morgan’s book, an allusion to a line from the Book of Isaiah that is sung in every synagogue: “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh — Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!”
According to the life of Allen Ginsberg as told by Bill Morgan, the same thing can be said of Ginsberg himself, a man whose poetic sensibilities fill the world in which his fellow poets continue to live and work.
Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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May 22, 2010 | 9:52 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Recently I’ve been poring over my collection of guidebooks in anticipation of our upcoming trip to Israel. I’ve got the latest Fodor’s, but I am also paging through a yellowing copy of a guide that was first published in Israel in 1956. As a bookmark, I am using a postcard that was mailed from the King David Hotel to our family home in Culver City only a few years after statehood.
Unique among my travel resources, however, is “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide” by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman (Jewish Lights Publishing: $18.95, 243 pps.). More than a mere guidebook, however, it must be described as nothing less than a guide for the perplexed tourist to Israel.
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land is an ancient tradition, of course, but not much in fashion in Jewish circles nowadays. “Secularism runs so deep that we often reduce spiritual moments to mere lessons in history,” complains Rabbi Hoffman. “We are good at history, good at aesthetics, not so good at the life of the spirit.”
So Rabbi Hoffman offers his book as a corrective: “A Companion for the Modern Pilgrim” is its unapologetic subtitle. “[T]ourism is the wrong word for what Jews do when they go to Israel.”
The book begins with readings, meditations, and prayers that are offered as spiritual exercises to prepare the reader for travel to Israel. Once on the ground in Eretz Yisrael, he encourages us to deepen our experience by focusing on the religious significance of the places we visit: “For tourists, the world is made of ‘sights’; for pilgrims, it consists of ‘sites,’” he explains. “A ‘sight’ is only to be seen, whereas a ‘site’ retains its existence even if no one ever sees it.”
Rabbi Hoffman is unafraid of sentimentality and always seeks out the spiritual dimension of travel in Israel. He offers a collection of prayerful “acknowledgments” to be recited or sung at various places around Israel, including one that is “to be said, perhaps, in the fields of a kibbutz” — “Dress me, good mother, in a robe of many colors,” goes the poem “Toil” by Abraham Shlonsky. “Lead me at dawn to work.”
Many guidebooks offer advice on the best places to find an exceptional falafel stand or a fine meal, but “Israel: A Spiritual Guide” is less concerned with what or where we eat in Israel than with achieving the proper kavannah — spiritual consciousness and intention — when we “[share] a meal of thanksgiving and celebration on sacred soil.”
Only rarely does the harsh reality of the here and now penetrate the pages of “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide.” For example, Rabbi Hoffman prescribes a ritual to be observed at “the sites where the Bible says our Matriarchs and Patriarchs are buried.” But he acknowledgers that there are risks in visiting Hebron and Bethlehem: “Political considerations may make such a visit physically dangerous,” he cautions, although he also holds out the hope that “a secure and lasting peace will open Hebron and Bethlehem to Jewish pilgrimage.” To which we should say: “Amen!”
Perhaps the most appealing quality of Rabbi Hoffman’s book is the fact that it is not a one-way experience — he provides blank pages where the reader can enter his or her own reflections and experiences, thus turning “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide” into a travel journal to be cherished over a lifetime and handed down, like my 1956 guidebook, as a family treasure.
(For the sake of full disclosure, I am obliged — and proud — to say that, over the years, I have consulted with Jewish Lights Publishing, the publisher of “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide,” on business matters unrelated to this book.)
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of 13 books, including “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.” He can be reached at email@example.com.
May 17, 2010 | 1:26 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
With the publication of “Hopes and Prospects” by Noam Chomsky (Haymarket Books: $16, 328 pps.), America’s most challenging public intellectual offers a fresh warning against what he has long seen as “a growing deterioration in the functioning of our democratic institutions” and the threat that it poses both at home and abroad.
One measure of his impact on American political culture is the likelihood that many of his readers have forgotten (and some never knew) that he first made his reputation as a pioneering theorist in the field of linguistics. He remains a professor emeritus at MIT, but today Chomsky is best known as a harsh, demanding and unrelenting critic of American policy, foreign and domestic.
So it’s fascinating (and a bit ironic) when Chomsky criticizes President Obama for uttering the following words: “To be a genuine party to peace, the Quartet [United States, EU, Russia, UN] has made it clear that Hamas must meet clear conditions: recognize Israel’s right to exist; renounce violence; and abide by past agreements.”
When Chomsky parses these words, he argues that Obama is a hypocrite: “[T]he United States and Israel,” he insists, “reject all three conditions for themselves.” But he also writes: “It follows, by Obama’s reasoning, that neither the United States nor Israel is a ‘genuine party to peace.’ But that cannot be. It is not even a phrase in the English language.”
His quibble with the President’s command of the English language, of course, is merely word-play. After all, the meaning of Obama’s words is plain enough. But the fact remains that Chomsky himself is a controversialist, and he often uses language to inflame rather than to enlighten.
Thus, for example, Chomsky charges that Ariel Sharon’s notion of Palestinian statehood was nothing more than “bantustans for Palestinians.” We might profitably debate the moral and strategic assumptions of Sharon’s position, and we might even agree with Chomsky on some points of his critique. But when he uses such provocative language, Chomsky is not seeking to persuade the open-minded reader; rather, he is preaching to the reader who already shares his convictions.
The same resort to inflammatory language can be found throughout “Hopes and Prospects.” Chomsky refuses to dignify the right-wing justices of the Supreme Court as “conservatives” and insists on calling them “reactionaries.” He characterizes “the Mafia doctrine” – that is, the proposition that “the Godfather does not easily tolerate disobedience” – as “an underappreciated principle of international order.” He disdains the bureaucratic euphemism “Multi-National Force” and uses a blunter term to describe the troops on the ground in Iraq: “the U.S. occupying army.” And he argues that the invasion of Iraq would be regarded as a war crime if we applied the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal to ourselves.
“Needless to say, U.S. elite opinion, shared with Western counterparts generally, rejects with virtual unanimity the lofty American values professed at Nuremberg and adopted by Iraqis, indeed regards them as bordering on obscene,” he writes. “All of this provides an instructive illustration of some of the reality that lies behind the famous ‘clash of civilizations.’”
“Hopes and Prospects” is a jeremiad, of course, and the rhetorical fireworks go with the genre. Then, too, Chomsky has read and thought deeply about these issues, and anyone who disagrees with him must be prepared to answer the questions he poses about our history and our destiny as a nation. In that sense, Chomsky stands in the vital American tradition that produced I. F. Stone, Victor Navasky, and Robert Scheer, among other notables. And I do not mean to suggest the Chomsky needs to blunt the edge of the arguments he makes. We need our journalistic Jeremiahs, now more than ever. But I wonder if the reader who would benefit the most from hearing what Chomsky has to say is the same reader whose circuit-breakers will go off when he or she comes across one of Chomsky’s verbal hot wires.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of, most recently, “The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 11, 2010 | 9:26 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
The conversation about the Middle East is changing fast nowadays, both in America and around the world, and here’s a unique opportunity to find out why.
Kai Bird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is coming to the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, May 17, 2010, to talk about “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and the Israelis, 1956-1978” (Scribner: $27.00, 384 pps). You can find out more about the event at the website of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.
“Crossing Mandelbaum Gate,” which I previously reviewed here, is unsettling but also wholly fascinating personal memoir that allows us to glimpse the history and politics of the Middle East through the eyes of a young man who grew up, almost literally, on the frontline between Arabs and Israelis.
Bird’s father was an American diplomat whose postings took the family to the Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. But Bird also understands the Jewish perspective, thanks to his Jewish wife and her parents, who were both Holocaust survivors. By his upbringing, professional experience and personal affiliations, Bird is uniquely positioned to reframe our view of what is at stake in the conflict that continues to fill the headlines.
Much of what Bird has to say in “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate” is deeply challenging, especially to Jewish readers, and I predict that his conversation at the Central Library with Nicholas Goldberg, editor of the Los Angeles Times editorial pages, will be a lively and provocative event. But I am also confident that more light and than heat will be forthcoming.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and author of, among other titles, “The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People.”
May 8, 2010 | 9:19 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my gun,” or so goes a famous line that is commonly (but wrongly) attributed to Hermann Goering and various other Nazi leaders.
Stripped of its odious associations, however, these words serve to remind us that culture is always a weapon in the clash of civilizations, “a sort of theatre where various political and ideological causes engage one another,” as the late Edward Said put it. The point is made by Jennifer M. Dueck, a post-doctoral fellow at Oxford University, with clarity, elegance and color in “The Claims of Culture at Empire’s End: Syria and Lebanon Under French Rule” (Oxford University Press: $85.00).
“Those who purported to lead, whether in a small community or on the national stage, did not fight solely over economic or political matters,” writes Dueck. “They also sought to control the institutions that would, in their view, alter or perpetuate the people’s understanding of the symbols that breathed life and meaning into the languages they spoke, the values they held, and the identity that made them part of a family, a community, or a nation.”
The focal point of Dueck’s monograph is a territory that is often overlooked when we consider the making of the modern Middle East — the portion of the defeated and dismantled Ottoman Empire that was handed over to France after World War I. Just as Palestine was a British mandate until 1948, Syria and Lebanon were ruled between the wars by the French, who took it upon themselves “to better the lives of ‘primitive’ indigenous populations by offering them the wonders of French civilization.” Thus did a former backwater of the Levant become, in Dueck’s words, “a crucible of international strategic interests,” and remains so today.
While Dueck maintains a tight focus on the “cultural enterprises” of French colonialism — language, education, cinema, tourism and even scouting — her book also offer a way to reframe the way we see the Middle East. Indeed, the subtext of her work includes the very notion of what constitutes national identity in a place where pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism were already in play. “One reason why scouting attracted such enthusiastic attention is the political symbolism with which it quickly became associated,” explains Dueck. “Frequently accompanied by one flag or another on their outings, scout groups associated themselves with particular political visions for their region, whether Lebanese, Syrian or Pan-Arab.”
Dueck’s book is a specialized work of scholarship, but she offers a crucial insight in to the latest efforts of the West to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. She compares the “cultural diplomacy” of France in Syria and Lebanon to “the soft power seduction trade” as it is being conducted today by the United States elsewhere in the Middle East. And she reminds us that the Arab street is also a kind of fighting front when it comes to culture war.
“The success or failure of foreign cultural initiatives ultimately depended on their reception on the ground,” she concludes, “where they might be welcomed, dismissed, or absorbed and reinvented.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.
May 1, 2010 | 6:53 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Most journalists – and I am certainly one of them – work behind a desk. A few brave souls among us, however, insist on putting themselves in harm’s way. War correspondents have always been authentic heroes, no less so than the men and women in uniform whom they write about, and we have always depended on them for news from the front.
Daniele Mastrogiacomo is that kind of journalist. A longtime correspondent for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, he has reported from Baghdad, Tehran, Mogadishu, and the frontlines of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Precisely because he fearlessly puts himself where the action is, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time — Mastrogiacomo was taken captive by the Taliban while covering the war in Afghanistan in 2007 and forced to witness the beheading of one of his Afghan colleagues.
Mastrogiacomo allows us to relive his ordeal in “Days of Fear: A Firsthand Account of Captivity Under the New Taliban” (Europa Editions: $15.00, 181 pps.), expertly and lucidly translated from the Italian by Michael Reynolds. It’s the most harrowing of memoirs, a tale of adventure and survival, and — above all — a first-hand account of the special terrors that he endured as a prisoner of the Taliban under the constant threat of death by decapitation.
Mastrogiacomo returned to Afghanistan at a moment when, “for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, suicide bombers had appeared on the scene.” He wanted to find out “whether new blood is running through the Taliban’s veins.” And he felt obliged “to tell the story of this war that the world feels is far away, to measure reality against what passes for reality in the official bulletins.” Exactly here we see the sense of duty that explains why some reporters go to war: “My profession demands it.”
The book reads like a Graham Greene novel played out in real life. The landscape through which we move in Mastrogiacomo’s book is both beguiling and menacing, populated with colorful but dubious figures, rich with exotic sights and smells but always full of peril. At the cross-roads where he is to meet the Taliban for an interview, everything goes suddenly and terribly wrong — Mastrogiacomo and his Afghan colleagues are taken for spies, locked in the trunk of a car, and spirited away. We do not know until the end of the book whether any of them will escape with their lives. Some do not, although Mastrogiacomo lived to tell the tale.
What makes his book especially rewarding is that it allows the long-running war in Afghanistan, which we glimpse only in headlines and death notices, to snap into sharp focus. American lives are being lost in that far-off place every day, but we have only a faint notion of why we are there and what we are hoping to accomplish. Mastrogiacomo, at the risk of his own life, shows us exactly what is at stake.
I had the opportunity to meet and work with Mastrogiacomo at the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where he appeared on a panel that I moderated. He is ruggedly built and matinee-idol handsome, and he speaks English in the richly musical tones of his native country. If they ever make a movie of his book, he could play himself.
At one point during the program at the Festival of Books, I asked him if he had felt safer in Afghanistan because he was Italian, and he answered that all Western journalists are equally at risk. “The Taliban thought I was American,” said Mastrogiacomo, and a member of the audience cracked: “It must have been the accent.”
Mastrogiacomo joined in the laughter, another measure of his poise and courage. But his book, and the lessons to be learned from it, are no laughing matter.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.